House OKs revamp of VA appeals to fix backlog

Associated Press

Washington — The House easily approved legislation Tuesday to cut the time it takes for the Department of Veterans Affairs to handle appeals from veterans unhappy with their disability payouts, an effort to reduce a rapidly growing claims backlog without adding billions in government costs.

Currently, veterans could wait five years or more to resolve their appeals. The VA previously warned it would need money for “hiring surges” in the government’s fiscal year beginning next Oct. 1 or face a backlog, now at 470,000, that would grow to 1 million within a decade.

The bill would overhaul the current VA appeals process, long described by VA Secretary David Shulkin and his predecessors as “broken.” It allows veterans to file “express” appeals if they waive their right to a hearing or the ability to submit new evidence. The VA could test the new program for up to 18 months until Shulkin could certify it was ready for a full rollout with enough money to manage appeals effectively.

Lawmakers hope the legislation ultimately could reduce average wait times to less than a year.

The House vote was 418-0.

Trump’s budget proposal released Tuesday calls for a 3.7 percent increase in total VA funding, one of the few agencies slated for more money amid big-time cuts to other agencies. But the bulk of the VA increase will pay for rising health care costs, while non-health programs will be trimmed or kept at mostly the same levels as 2017. Shulkin has warned that due to a tightening Trump administration budget, future increases to the VA budget cannot be assumed.

The department provides $63.7 billion in disability compensation payments each year to about 4.1 million veterans with disabling conditions incurred during their military service.

“The current system is slow, cumbersome, frustrating, and full of bureaucratic red tape,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “These veterans have bills to pay, and families to support. …The changes in this bill will make a difference and help expedite the process so that veterans can get a decision on their appeal and then get on with their lives.”

It now goes to the Senate, where bipartisan legislation has been introduced.

The bill was one of six VA-related bills approved by the House before it leaves Thursday for a weeklong Memorial Day recess.

Also passed were bills that would increase the cost-of-living adjustment for veterans receiving disability compensation and expand access to adult day health care. They also would establish a pilot using new technology to treat mental trauma, require broader reporting of VA prescription data and allow local doctors outside the VA system to conduct disability medical exams.

Under the disability appeals bill, the VA would have to develop detailed plans to update IT systems and training.